Wednesday, 30 April 2014

A tree's happy ending

A magnificent tree at Kent Ridge. 

GRAVITY was a great movie despite there being only one main character. A very entertaining movie with Sandra Bullock talking to herself most of the time. But unfortunately for me, there are not many examples in Literature where stories (sorry, plots) with just one or two main characters (and nothing much happening) made it to my "must read" list. I remember doing Waitng for Godot  by Samuel Beckett in the university and catching the play when it came to Singapore. I have to admit that I slept through much of it. (This is a play with only two protagonists -- two tramps engaged in meaningless conversations with each other.) Yes, I got the human condition thing. But I was bored stiff.

This (falling asleep) didn't happen when I was given The Giving Tree to read when I started work as a library officer. This story has only two protagonists -- a tree and a boy. Written by Shel Silverstein  and first published by Harper & Row in 1964, it has a certain bitter sweetness that is simpler than The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and more subtle than The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde,

According to this article in Wiki, the author had a difficult time looking for a publisher. One said the story was too sad for kids and too simple for adults. But luckily, Harper & Row agreed to publish it with whimsical drawings of the tree and the boy.(From my experience as a library officer though, I don't think kids find it sad. They probably find it boring, like I did with Godot. A tree talking to a boy? Bah! )

In The Giving Tree, the saddest part was the ending when the tree said to the boy, an old man by then, that he can rest against its stump -- if that's what the boy (or rather the old man) needs. It has become a stump as it has given everything that it has ever owned to the boy. It has offered its branches for swinging upon when the boy was young,.Then, those were chopped off to make into a house for the boy. Later, most of its trunk was sawn off to make into a boat.

But finally, the boy's "I want" list comes to an end. He has become tired and weary and only wants a quiet place to rest. So he rests against the old stump... and the tree is happy. The end.

So much for a happy ending.  But I guess it's still not as sad as Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince (which by the way, has only a statue talking to a bird). If that isn't a sad story for both kids and adults, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A sheltering tree at SPCA

The puppy that kept everyone awake.
SPCA is an acronym I knew from primary school days. (Anyway, there weren't too many acronyms in my childhood days, unlike today when you have PIE, KJE, CTE, MCE etc.)

My first visit to SPCA involved taking a rare taxi ride there with my parents, hugging a stray mother cat and her kid. SPCA has always been registered in my mind as a protective and sheltering place. I visualise it as a big, sheltering tree where animals can climb up and down its trunk in play, or laze around under its shade. Not sure whether SPCA agrees with my mental image. But from my visits, the animals look happy and clean -- and safe. There was a sign there (during my last visit) which said animals kept there will not be put to sleep but will await a home.

So, after my A levels I answered SPCA's ad in the papers  for a job as a veterinary assistant. SPCA was then located at Orchard Road. I was probably not dressed right for the interview. I needed to attend another interview later as a Passenger Service Agent (PSA) at the airport, so I was  in a nice long-sleeved pink blouse, white skirt and high heels. He looked at me and asked whether I would be ok assisting in surgeries, hold panicking animals still, and not be squeamish at the sight of blood. I answered yes, no problem.

I got a letter of rejection from SPCA a few days later. (I didn't get the PSA job either, so I should have gone to the SPCA interview dressed more ruggedly!)  Anyway, the real outcome of the whole episode was that I adopted a puppy. I didn't know what ailed me, but I went back there and told them that I wanted a puppy. Finally chose a really sweet, tiny mutt. It was placed in a used brown paper bag (the Chinese type with red and white strings as handle) lined with newspapers. I took the bundle of joy home  -- and received many smiles and compliments from the other passengers in the bus.

Mum was not at all pleased though. It pee-ed and poo-ed all over the house -- and had to be kept in the bathroom at night where it yelped piteously till someone went in to play with it. Everybody agreed that I should return it to SPCA. Especially my eldest brother who usually returned late at night and had to put the puppy out before he could take his bath -- and then in a bathroom littered with poo and pee. (By the way, he is a proud owner of two dogs now -- a full-time dog and a part-time dog which actually belongs to my niece.)

My second attempt to work as a vet assistant came after I quit my full-time job and became a freelance writer. This time, a veterinary centre at Whitley Road. I was told to give it a shot so I reported for work the next day. First thing I had to do was help clean the kennels and cages. At 9am, the vet sailed in with breakfast for everyone. But I couldn't put in a morsel after having hosed the kennels and getting rid of all the swirling bits and pieces.

"Why, not hungry?" the vet asked. All I could think of then was that I wished I had a pair of wellies. After that, I had a go at deciphering the vet's handwriting and dishing out prescriptions. His handwriting was worse than any doctor's I ever knew. I didn't have time to cuddle any kitten or puppy. Not even a hamster. I didn't make the cut as a vet assistant, I am afraid.

Better that I am a pet owner than a vet assistant. There were many more visits to SPCA in my life, accompanying friends who wanted to adopt a cat or a dog. One visit stood out. A canine of my landlord's cat had come loose. It protruded out giving the cat a rascally look. So we took it to SPCA which was by then, at Mt Vernon. Dr Jean Paul Ly saw us. (He must have just started out on his career then). We dislodged the fat cat from the bag and sat her on his table. He took one look and the tooth was out before we could say "hallelujah". We bowed our way out in gratitude... and wonder.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Singapore's old spiky half moons

You only see these "spokes"(left) in old architecture in Singapore - spiky things in the shape of a half moon on upper floors or roofs of old buildings. I remember asking dad what they were when I was a kid. My dad said they were to prevent people from climbing into the house. I see these spiky structures in the old building at Balestier Road where I attend taichi classes. They are located at corners where one could climb over to next door, say from the lift landing to the next unit (if not for these structures). Some are even reinforced with barbed wires. So I guess my dad was right that they were some form of deterrents . 

So unless you are Spiderman, you won't be able to swing from one roof top to the next with these spiky "separators". Can some architect let me know the proper term of these structures, or their real functions (if I were wrong about them)?

Those half-moon spikes again. separating the units of terraced houses along Emerald Hill Road.

Old gateway III: Yan Kit

The pools have been filled -- and somewhat "landscaped" with neatly manicured  lawns. I took a peep in and saw that the colourful concrete floor tiles were still intact. I remember those tiles somehow (they were similar to those at Queen Elizabeth Walk) though my parents took me there only once. I think I screamed the house, or rather the pool down, when I dipped my legs into the pool. I absolutely refused to go into the water. But once back home, I began to badger my parents to bring me to the pool again. It must have gotten very irritating for my mum who put me in a tub of water and told me to pretend that I was swimming. Picture taken 5 April 2014.  

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Some familiar brands: 60s & 70s

Sunlight Soap's faithful companion, the
wooden wash board.
SUNLIGHT Soap immediately comes to mind. Remember the long bar of soap (with the sunny colour of course) with the word "sunlight" embossed along its length? I remember they were at least a foot in length (or at least those which we bought) and I supposed mum would have to hack them into smaller pieces for use. But for washing clothes, you use the full length, scrubbing the soap on the piece of laundry on the washing board. The smell was pleasant, not overly strong -- uniquely Sunlight Soap.

My brother and mum used small blocks for soap carving. It all started as part of my brother's school art project. But mum liked it so much that it became her hobby. And soon, there were a few animals carved from soap displayed on the book shelves in our living room. There were one big rabbit and a baby, one big elephant and a baby.

I could never carve anything, but my mum and brother were skillful. Their only tool was an ordinary penknife. First they hewed a rough shape. They then used water to "smooth" out angular bits -- the elephant's tummy for example, especially needed to be rotund and smooth! Also, detailed engraving was easier when the block was a little wet.

Sunlight soap was used only for laundry and for washing hands. For bathing, it was Lux soap. Occasionally, a touch of luxury, Camay. As a child, I liked the soap wrappings which I thought were so beautiful. Lux wrapping had just the brand name written on it but came in several colours. Camay wrappers had a metallic finish. They also came in several colours but had a portrait of a lady on them, rather like a cameo brooch. Mum would store a few bars in a drawer of a cupboard which was in our living room. The drawer smelled heavenly of course.

Mum would regularly ask me to check the drawer to see whether we needed new stocks. If so, I was to remind her to jot it down in the list which she would present to the "mobile provision shop" man when he next came around. The mobile provision shop was a small little van. The delivery man had a pencil stuck behind his right ear which he would take down to note our requirements -- for example, moth balls (small round ones in a transparent packet with blue print), insecticides, Dettol (which mum sometimes poured a few drops into the pail for mopping floors), brooms, mops, pails, Sunlight soaps...

For milk powder, I was most familiar with Bear brand. It has a yellow tin, with a black and white ink drawing of a mother bear feeding its baby with a milk bottle. Mum made a hot, thick and sweet version for me whenever I got sick. Sometimes she also made a jar of it (more diluted) and kept it in the fridge so that we could have chilled milk whenever we were thirsty. I liked the chilled version better.

Quaker Oats. This tin of oats, graced by the gentleman in black hat and coat, was a standard in our childhood kitchen. Sick? Mum would boil the oats in water till it became thick. This took a rather long time as there were no instant oats in those days. Then, she would whisk in an egg. Add a few spoonfuls of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Take that first, and then your medicine (which inadvertently was clear pink syrup if you had a cough, or a horrible opaque yellow mixture if you happened to have diarrhea). Actually, mum's standard fare for invalids was white rice porridge with salted eggs. But we didn't always have salted eggs. That's when the distinguished Quaker swung into action. (Talking about salted eggs, I remember mum went all the way from Serangoon Gardens to the row of shophouses near Yio Chu Kang to get them when I was sick. I went along with her and she had to carry me on her back when I became too ill and tired to walk.)

Brylcreem. They came in a stout glass bottle with a metal screw-on cap. The cream was white in colour. You dip a corner of your comb into it and bring it out again with a morsel of the cream. More used by guys of course. But I also used it when I saw my brother combing his hair with it. I didn't like its oiliness and its smell, but I needed it to part my hair with the straightest of lines. (I spent hours parting my hair, by the way!)

Remember this label? Clue: Green is the predominant
colour of this product.
Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo. This brand came later, sometime in the 70s. Was a rather popular brand among my friends and myself. But be careful of imitation. If you look at the label of the original version, the girl among the flowers had her left hand raised. The imitations had the right hand raised. So the story went. But we could never remember which hand.

Gee, Your Hair Smell Terrific. Blue plastic bottles with each alphabet of the brand in a different wacky colour. Certainly remember the commercials. The girls in them had such nice bouncy hair, we just had to try the brand.

Short and Sassy. My hair had always been rather short, but I never managed to get it "sassy" as well. Didn't stop me from using the brand faithfully for a while. It had red packaging and the label had a girl on it with really nice swingy hair.

I know I have missed out Yardley (it has been around!) but somehow my mum and I were not fans. Mum had a tube of Max Factor lipstick though. It had been with her for the longest time. It has a glam, gold casing -- a beautiful shade of pink. I always took it out from her dressing table to admire it. I dropped it one day and it broke into two. I tried to melt one end a bit by burning a matchstick near it so that I could "glue" the other piece back (like joining a wax candle). It began to lose its wonderful scent and smelt of burned plastic instead. No choice, had to tell mum about it. Mum wasn't too overly upset. She continued to use the burnt lipstick, stoically.

Before I end, do your remember Brut? In the 70s, Brut was the operative word, or rather the cologne (for guys). Some girls like the scent so much that they even used it too. As for me, I would give it a clear berth. I thought it especially smelt bad with perspiration. Sorry if I had offended some former users of Brut :)